Tuesday, 24 March 2015

How to look after and shop for vintage perfume

A sepia photo of three bottles of perfume
NO! DO NOT DO THIS!
Just a short post, this, but as the one on Phul-Nana seemed popular and Cate (Vintage Gal) mentioned she'd got a bottle of Je Reviens that was at least a couple of decades old, I thought I'd pass on some advice.

Perfumes do change with age. The most volatile notes, the top notes (so, the citrussy ones) will go first. Some brands seem to age worse than others. However, all that stuff about having to use perfume within two years of opening or it'll go bad? That is, as they say in Norfolk, a load'er old squit. I've still got the bottle of Obsession my first proper boyfriend bought me in about 1991, and it's still good. I've also got a bottle of Estee Lauder Blue Grass from the 1950s, and that's jolly nice, though as I haven't had it from new I can't tell you if it's changed massively. The one I own that has turned (and really should throw out) is a bottle of 4711 – the classic eau de cologne, it's mostly top notes, so no surprise that it went before the heavier Obsession. It smells pretty nasty now.

Perfumes go bad because they oxidise, and anyone with even a vague grasp of chemistry will realise that means oxygen is part of the process. Splash bottles age faster than spray ones, because it's easier for fresh air to get in contact with the perfume. Make sure you keep your caps on tightly. (That'll also prevent evaporation; if you regularly notice a lovely smell of perfume in your bedroom that could well be your fragrances vanishing into the atmosphere.) The other thing anyone with a vague grasp of chemistry knows is that heat speeds up a reaction, and that means two of the worst enemies for your perfumes, whatever their vintage, are heat and light.

That pretty dressing table display? Make sure it's empty bottles only, or something you won't mind losing. Sorry.
The tops of three sepia bottles of perfume
My perfumes are all, with the exception of a few bottles I acquired before I knew any better, kept in their boxes. The treasured, long-discontinued Jean Patous even live in their boxes inside a wooden box. My bedroom isn't heated – my lungs can be a bit rubbish and a heated bedroom doesn't help – but it does get hot in summer, so early every summer I transfer the whole lot downstairs to the much cooler dining room. Given the number of bottles I own, it's a migration on a par with wildebeeste crossing the Masai Mara... Serious perfumistas keep theirs in a fridge, but I don't have the space for that. At any rate, keep them dark, keep them cool.

'Dark and cool' should also be your mantra when shopping for vintage perfume. If you can pick up a bottle cheaply in a junk shop or at a car boot, it's probably fair to take a gamble, but if you're shopping for serious vintage scent, such as a decades-old bottle of something from Guerlain or Chanel, the prices will be high and you should be cautious. (Think of it as akin to buying a vintage dress from a car boot or shopping for vintage designer clothing; you'd be far fussier about condition in the latter case.) I personally would never buy a bottle that's been on display in a shop window, and would have a serious conversation with the vendor about anything that was displayed unboxed in a cabinet. While some fragrances are very dark even when new – Youth Dew springs to mind – you should avoid anything that looks darker than you'd expect. If the bottle is part-empty, ask yourself, 'Has this been used up, or do I think it has evaporated and so is likely to be oxidised?' If you're satisfied that the perfume has been stored in a reasonable manner, and it looks okay, ask to give it a sniff, and if it doesn't smell turned, see if you can try a dab on. After that, buy it if you like it. Some top notes may have gone, or it may have changed, but as long as you like it, that's the important thing!

If you like vintage and perfume, I recommend Goody's blog (food, vintage, perfume – what's not to love?). Her acquisitions make me deeply envious. And if you're looking for perfumes made now but formulated in the past, I've made a guide to scents that are still available: up to 1940, 1940-1959 and 1960-89.

13 comments :

  1. Aw, thanks for the kind words.

    The only thing I had that changed noticeably in my care (for the better, aged like wine) was my bottle of Guet Apens. I didn't care for it when I purchased it, but years tucked away in a dark box did wonders for it.

    If the stuff is cheap, I'll go ahead and buy it. I have a bottle of Avon Charisma that was sitting out in a thrift store, brightly lit, and ended up being fine. A good dealer on-line will have checked the product before selling (I trust seller, Nine of Cups, on Etsy for sample sized perfumes-she's great!) but even so you can still get a stinker.

    I haven't gone the fridge route (yet) but I am considering decanting my favourite rare fragrances into an amount I'll use over the next few years, and then sealing the rest with wax around the outside. I think I've been lucky so far, and I'd be destroyed if I let something preventable happen. You're more attentive with your clothes than I am as well *Hangs head in shame*.

    Bonkers about Perfume is a great writer, and she knows far more than I do about fragrance. I want to be her when I grow up!

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    1. It's true, I love your blog! Good blogs deserve a mention, I reckon.

      Charisma is the first scent I can remember owning. Someone gave me a bottle of it in the shape of Jemima Puddleduck when I was a kid.

      Ooh, I hadn't thought of the wax thing, that's a good idea. I think I look after stuff as a side effect of having been horribly hard up as a kid; when you don't know if you'll be getting anything in the near future, you make sure what you've got lasts well. Though I am terrible at ironing. I need to be more conscientious with that. Stuff hangs around in the dining room for weeks until reaching the point of 'iron it, or go naked'.

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  2. I'm a bit rubbish as a girl, I only ever wear Lush's Karma.
    I loved reading this though and your bottle collection is really pretty. I love some of the vintage Avon bottles I occasionally come across at car boot sales. xxx

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    1. I have to be ruthless, I don't keep empty bottles. Got too many with stuff in as it is! I think I like perfume because I'm not very visual, and my sense of smell is quite important to me.

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  3. Mim,
    I haven't had the idea that this is how parfumes work - maybe because I never owned a truly old one (by age & by it's notes).
    The problem with me is this: I can not buy vintage parfume, since it's heavy on my stomach - I react on an undertone, and have a problem with anything that is deep. So, I have to opt for some light, toilet-water.. something with just a hint of floral scent (and, maybe a bit of powder smell in it).
    I have tried some old ones, Chanel 5, Guerlain.. and it was not a pleasant experiance (it makes me sad - I'm not a perfume-proof person) :(

    Marija

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    1. Interesting - I have a friend who can't wear perfume too, it all turns nasty on her skin. You will have to compensate by buying more shoes and jewellery ;-)

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    2. Indeed, I do that. :)
      I can't wait for the mail to arrive.... :D

      Marija

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  4. "Given the number of bottles I own, it's a migration on a par with wildebeeste crossing the Masai Mara"...hysterical, thank you for that, I needed cheering up!
    Interesting post. I was so disappointed in the new Aqua Manda, it is NOT like the old one despite their insistence. And they have been so rude to those ladies who have said so, like they don't know what their favourite scent smelled like, it's hard wired into the memory. Seriously, take a telling, guys. I suspect it's the crap EU stuff, but they refuse to admit it.

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    1. Augh, I hate it when perfume companies lie. Perfumes do change, and the current regulations mean they CAN'T make things the same as they were in the 1970s, so why fib to their customers? I once had a saleslady try to tell me something was 100% natural when it was from the aldehyde group, which means it was built around synthetic notes - and none the worse for that.

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  5. I only ever have one perfume on the go at a time, and I wear it every day till it's gone, then I buy something else - no evaporation or deterioration issues for me! xxx

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    1. Oooh, that'd be like wearing the same dress every day for me, I just couldn't do it. I think I pay more attention to which fume I'm going to wear each day than which shoes to put on.

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  6. Oops (hastily moves bottles off dressing table...)....

    This is really interesting Mim, I always find these posts about perfume incredibly educational, coming from a perfume heathen like me!!

    xx

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    1. I loooove my perfume! Probably got enough to last me till I'm at least 50...

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